why don’t students study plants?

was going to write about yesterday’s dreadful Herald headline on the risks of multivitamin pills (which implied that women taking multi-vits are at a hugely increased risk of breast cancer) – but Jim McVeagh beat me to it.


I’ve just finished giving my first-year ‘plants’ lectures. I really enjoy them & so, judging by appearances, do most of the students ๐Ÿ™‚ But every year, when I ask for an indication of where they might be in terms of prior knowledge, then judging by the show of hands at least a third (& sometimes more) of the class tell me that they didn’t study the plant-related standards in year 12 of secondary school. (Either that, or they don’t remember studying them, which is much the same for my purposes.) This means I get to tread the fine line between losing that third of the class & boring the rest, who remember at least some of what they learned. And I don’t get any complaints to that effect in the end-of-semester paper appraisals, so I guess I manage to do that OK.

But it is a bit of a concern. I mean, plants are wonderful organisms in their own right, quite apart from the fact that the flowering plants, in particular, can be the inspiration for some beautiful works of art:

 New York City, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art: Autumn Landscape (c1923, Tiffany Studios, New York City)

 This one’s a Tiffany window (Autumn Landscape) from the Cambridge 2000 image gallery. And then there’s this quilt (which I want!) by Leonore Crawford, which my brother saw & photographed in an exhibition in Beaujolais, France:

And of course plants, like all living things, have a natural beauty all their own. This shows the transport tissues in the root of a plant called Smilax:

This is a cross-section through the tissues of a leaf:

And I could go on & on.

But quite apart from all of that, plants – with their ancient ancestors, the blue-green algae – changed the nature of our planet. Without aerobic photosynthesis churning out oxygen as a waste product, there’d be no oxygen-rich atmosphere, no biosphere as we know it, and the complex plant, animal, & fungal life around us could not have evolved. They underpin most food chains & are of enormous economic and ecological significance. It’s hard to see how you could study ecological restoration, for example, without at least a passing acquaintance with the plant kingdom.

So – back to my initial question: why don’t more students study plants?



8 thoughts on “why don’t students study plants?”

  • I have to admit I *still* avoid plants! These days I have a genuine reason to: the family of proteins I am particularly interested just happen not to exist in plants!
    I think two main reasons put me off as a student:
    – one of the lecturers was into classification (aka taxonomy) in a major way and taught it as a rote classification by character thing. That’s boring for a kid who isn’t into rote learning. (Taxonomy works better I think if it’s in a presented in a dynamic, evolutionary model; presenting it as “rote” classification is awful.)
    – plants can be presented as if they don’t “do” anything. It’s silly I know, but I do think this is part of the problem. “They just sit there.” Perhaps students need to *see* plants reacting to things, not just be told about it?

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Mmm, the doing’s important all right. We’ve got our students growing plants, cutting their own sections, that sort of thing. The tutor’s keen to get them growing their own fern gametophytes, cos apparently it’s really easy to see the sperm swimming round looking for eggs – sex in the lab!!
    But schools don’t (many can’t) do that sort of thing. Plus the standards don’t necessarily lend themselves to anything more than hearing about plants sitting there. They’re expected to be able to talk about the diversity of structures related to reproduction, internal transport, transpiration & nutrition across 3 different taxonomic groups (mosses, ferns, gymnosperms, angiosperms). About the easiest experiment you can do is the good old potometer; there aren’t the microscopes or the facilities to do slides…
    The other thing is, you need to be able to tell stories. I really firmly believe that. (Mind you, I have to say this cos I do it myself all the time!) But there aren’t necessarily the resources out there that have all the nice little stories, precis (precises?) from the literature, that sort of thing, that your average too-busy teacher can easily access & use…
    I’d better stop before I really get going ๐Ÿ™‚

  • After talking to a few students on this topic it seems that most students feel the way I did. Plants are just too different and they donโ€™t do enough to be interesting. Animals we can understand because they are us, we can understand a brain and heart etc. But plants are foreign alien things, it is a whole new world with new language and concepts. It is certainly why I at times try to relate plant function to animal (such as phloem etc), because even when it may not be a whole accurate comparison it seems making it like an animal makes it so much easier for them to understand.
    Plants need to be in the curriculum at a much earlier stage so students are far more familiar with them, imho. And it really is a shame that students don’t learn to appreciate them, I never liked plants as a student but once I learned more about them my appreciation grew (hindsight I would have taken a plant paper in my degree!).

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Oh noes! So really, we need to look at the curriculum & make sure that plants are presented in a more engaging way ie definitely don’t start off with all the tissue-&-cell-types stuff at the start. And more examples of plants actually doing things eg dodder hunting… Hmmmm. Gonna be an uphill battle I think!

  • serra Kilduff says:

    Oh noes is right!!
    I love plants and have become a botanist- but my initial passion for them did not come from the classroom, but from fieldwork, where I spent years observing how amazing plant ecologies are, and developing ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ while hunting for weed species.
    Taxonomy is my passion, but identification by keys in abbreviated botanical Latin is dry work for anyone, let alone a student who has no other experience of plants.
    The things I can think of to encourage study of plants include: David Attenburrough’s Life of Plants series, especially the bit that looks at Blackberry bushes having wars ๐Ÿ™‚ and any other resources which demonstrate the dynamism of plants. Symbioses, ie, lichen, mychorrhizal-forest relationships, animal-plant mutualisations: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/02/pitcher-plant-evolves-into-toilet.php
    Looking at say, carnivorous plants, tangents can be taken into the evolution of specialisations and how different plant families in different parts of the world have arrived at similar solutions, etc.
    Plants are dynamic, just at different scales from animals, and I think helping students see those scales is the key to carturing their imagination.
    okay, I’ll stop ranting and do some work now (the teacher gene just came out!). I hope this is helpful ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Great to hear from you ๐Ÿ™‚
    I agree with the need to portray plants as dynamic organisms if we’re going to catch students’ interest. I try hard to do that in my lectures, I suspect with varying degrees of success ๐Ÿ™

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